Brewer vs. Williams: Two Wrong Decisions Making an Almost Right Result.

     Cases don’t normally go to the supreme court twice. The disappearance and death of a young girl in Iowa  in 1968 led to a series of bizarre legal questions. A man turned himself in but refused to speak to the police until the police transported him from Davenport to Des Moines. While driving along the highway, one police officer spoke aloud about the concern that the murdered girl might not be found in time to be given a proper Christian burial. The man in the backseat of the car, Williams, essentially confesses and proceeds to show the police where the body was hidden.

     The first trip to the supreme court was on the question of whether the so-called “Christian burial speech” by the police officer constituted an interrogation. The court ruled, 7-2, that it was the kind of speech that a reasonable person would understand to be an attempt to elicit a response. Accordingly, it was an unconstitutional interrogation that violated Williams’ 6th amendment due process rights. The trial proceeded with Williams’ confession excluded from evidence. The prosecution discovered that the location of the body was in an area that was going to be searched by police (as part of the search-team effort already underway at the time of WIlliams’ confession). The case returned to the supreme court (over 2 decades after the murder) to address the question of whether Williams’ confession should be included in court because the body would have been discovered regardless of the confession. The Supreme Court accepted this argument, and so WIlliams’ confession was included again as a result of the newly manufactured “Inevitable Discovery” exception.


Let’s take a moment to consider the reasoning employed here. First, the supreme court found that a police officer talking aloud can constitute an interrogation. Then, the court held that if evidence is in an area that is going to be searched, its discovery is inevitable. This kind of reasoning allows the prosecution to enter as evidence things that are said because it was “inevitable” that evidence was found.

     There are three separate errors in reasoning and language. First, there is a distinction between cultural norms that constitute an question and linguistic norms that constitute an interrogatory. Speaking about the need for a burial cannot be linguistically considered an interrogation because no question or request is ever posed. To see this as an interrogation requires reading cultural norms of “the kind of thing someone might react to with information in our culture.”

     Second, the fact that an area was scheduled to be searched does not mean the discovery of an object in that area is logically inevitable. We have all had the experience of looking for something in a desk drawer or between the sofa cushions and not finding it- only to later discover it have been there all along. Searching an area is not equivalent to discovering all objects in that area. Furthermore, that an event is scheduled to happen does not logically necessitate that the event will happen. All manner of possible interruptions may derail plans.

     Finally, the finding of an object and the verbal admission of guilt are two distinguishable things. Even if the discovery of an object was truly “inevitable,” there is no connection that the admission of guilt was likewise “inevitable” or that the discovery of incriminating evidence would necessarily bring about this kind of admission.


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